Empathy Shortcomings

Ministry leaders hear this: In North America and across the world today we continue to develop deep polarization along ideological lines.  What is needed today is an extraordinary need to develop the skill of empathy.  Empathy will help us communicate; without it we will continue to divide.

Sympathy can be pity with a bit of emotion thrown in (i.e.: “Sucks to be you”).  Empathy is different.  It is the ability to put oneself into another person’s shoes, figuratively speaking.  A person who shows sympathy may also show some distance, keeping themselves from totally understanding another person.  Empathy, on the other hand, should involve capturing the whole sense of the other person’s emotions, the reasoning behind their actions, appreciation for their personality and, on an internally intimate level, understand why the other is the person they are.  At its best this skill is regarded as ‘accurate empathy’.

At the risk of being judgmental, there are many pastors who are weak in the skill of empathy.  A colleague of mine even suggested that some even have pursued ministry because the Christian community has been too nice, too loving and too compassionate.  Some pastors progressed through their schooling and even ministry situations out of a type of kindness that has not addressed critically their shortcoming of emotional and social intelligence.  The demands of schooling and internships might have been met, but the ability of having the ability to connect with real people in real need can be lacking.

To have a learning opportunity in this area is likely right in front of us.  It can be right there in the midst of a problem we are currently facing.  It could be a board member, a congregant or a sibling where there is friction.  David Swink in “Psychology Today” on March 7, 2013 stated, “Sometimes it may be necessary to act empathetically to achieve a desired outcome even when you feel antagonistic to a person.  I have trained hostage negotiators for many years. Hostage negotiators are trained to act empathetically toward the hostage taker in order to establish the rapport necessary to influence him to give up and not hurt anyone. In fact, the negotiator most likely despises a person that would hold a woman and baby as hostages. What is interesting is that after a couple of hours many negotiators actually start to feel some empathy toward the hostage taker as a result of ‘acting’ empathetic. Most of us will never find ourselves in that position, but you may need to fake empathy to influence someone to an important end. Hopefully, you won’t experience that frequently, because there is often a price to pay for being consistently inauthentic.”

Those with empathy skills can express feelings and connect on a feeling level.  The ability to listening on an emotional heart level needs to have higher value in our search committees for ministry leaders.  Those who can relate data, truth statements, and Biblical quotes without the ability to connect emotionally will have less impact on the world around them.

Yes there is risk in responding with empathy.  It will take time, which is a very precious commodity, and there will be emotional cost.  The stress and work is not to be negated, but with the ability to truly connect emotionally there can be joy, love, peace … shall I go on?  The reward far outweighs the cost.

I may not be able to fix society, but here is some work I can do on myself.  I am by no means an expert in this area.  In my past I learned the skill to ‘grin and bear it’.   I can protect myself.  Distancing myself from anything that might be hurtful is my natural inclination.  But I know Jesus knows me completely.  He is empathetic.  He is Emmanuel – “God With Us!”

Your co-worker,  Dennis

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